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Grounded, stranded and taken for fools

London, 18 October 2023: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!” The final lyrics in the Who’s anthemic, stadium-shaking show-closer Won’t Get Fooled Again, an eviscerating rant against leaders who come and go while failing to make any difference to our lives. Too true. Anyone spending five hours in the taxi queue at our city’s typhoon-ravaged airport recently – as the heavens rained and chaos reigned – could be forgiven for asking what, exactly, has changed in Hong Kong.

Not much, it seems. A paralysed airport, no public transport, lack of contingency planning, no one in charge. Shades of 2019. Except this time all it took was Typhoon Koinu to intensify just a notch to send our much-hyped air hub into meltdown.

Flights kept landing – some 83 of them, bringing in 16,000 passengers – in a five-hour spell well into the evening after the MTR Corporation halted its Airport Express service to the city centre, citing safety concerns. With buses also suspended, taxis were the only way out. Queues stretched from the cab ranks outside all the way into the arrivals hall. Many passengers simply gave up and slept on the floor. Amid the sorrowful scenes, there were complaints about shortages of food and water, lack of staff support and – shock, horror – cabbies overcharging. Welcome to Hong Kong.

Order was restored only after several hours, when the storm abated just enough for the trains to resume. Followed by, of course, the inevitable inquests and pledges to do better. Airport Authority CEO Fred Lam assures us there will be “more space and seats for passengers to rest” while Transport Secretary Lam Sai-hung has promised a review. There is talk of implementing a taxi quota system so passengers can avoid queueing. “The government will continue to maintain close communications with the various public transport operators to study how to improve information dissemination and contingency arrangements,” warbles a Transport and Logistics Bureau spokesman.

The depressing airport images, beamed and tweeted around the world, are a further blow to Hong Kong’s reputation. They also add up to another headache for the “new boss” as he attempts to convince citizens that he is indeed different from the “old boss”.

Carrie Lam’s single term as Chief Executive was hallmarked by the twin catastrophes of self-induced civil unrest and staggering pandemic mismanagement, but there was also failure to properly address long-term housing, welfare and economic issues. Her legacy was (and remains) a deeply divided society. Enter John Lee, career policeman and former Secretary for Security, to clear up the mess.

The new man’s chief selling point – the only one he needed, in truth – was his status as Not Carrie. It helped that he stood for election unopposed, offered some general platitudes about unity and vowed to tackle the housing shortage, but being Not Carrie ensured he was cut plenty of slack. Not even an uninspiring leadership team announcement – just seven new faces in his 26-strong cabinet – could derail the prevailing give-him-a-chance sentiment.

How has he fared? Apart from his predictable refusal to sanction an independent inquiry into Hong Kong’s Covid-19 response – move along, nothing to see here – pretty well, according to supporters. A South China Morning Post assessment concludes he has delivered on 66 of his 68 first-year goals, including those related to attracting talent and business to the city and addressing our city’s chronic land and housing supply shortages. Yet, after seeing his approval ratings peak at 59% in February, when he lifted Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic restrictions and reopened the border, his popularity has dropped and now hovers around the 50 mark.

Some commentators would like to see more boldness. Former SCMP Editor-in-Chief Wang Xiangwei believes our leader, as he prepares to deliver his all-important second Policy Address next week, should pledge to eradicate our city’s notorious cage homes and sub-divided flats by 2032 – the end of his prospective second term. A nice thought, but John Lee is a safe pair of hands nurtured in the police force rather than a charismatic politician given to broad brushstrokes of visionary policy.

Someone who has met plenty of the latter is Amr Elhenawy. A diplomat for more than three decades, ending with a spell as Consul General of Egypt to Hong Kong and Macau, he has made our city his home and now facilitates investment and cultural ties between China and the Arab world. He joins me for a fascinating chat on Law & More. Please listen.

Amr was kindly introduced to our firm by my colleague Alex Liu, whose recent column about illegal building works at luxury homes has proven perceptive. An investigation by the Buildings Department at upscale Redhill Peninsula following a much-publicised landslide has netted a big fish in the shape of government advisor Sunny Chai, Chairman of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, whose US$12 million pile has unauthorised structures and illegally occupies government land. Ouch! This new boss joins a long list of old bosses – including former Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, ex-Chief Secretary Henry Tang and former Chief Executive CY Leung, no less – on the naughty step for such indiscretions.

The crackdown comes after years of criticism that the Buildings Department has failed to tackle rampant abuse of construction laws at luxury properties. Clearly, it won’t get fooled again.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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